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Duncan Talks School Improvement, Stimulus, and Education Department Culture


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got to use his favorite word again in a speech this morning when he said he wants states and districts to take "dramatic" steps to overhaul schools that are struggling to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.

He talked about how, as superintendent in Chicago, he closed the city's lowest-performing schools and brought in all new staff, resulting in significant academic gains.

But in a wide-ranging speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Duncan said that there's a shortage of folks out there—among states, districts, and even innovative non-profits—who know how to reshape foundering schools.

"I can count on one hand the number of turnaround specialists doing this work," he said.

There is already $3 billion for school improvement included as part of the economic stimulus package, and Duncan is pushing for another $1.5 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget. Some experts have told me that, while that money is great, they're not sure it will necessarily be put to good use because districts also need expertise to help fix chronically underperforming schools.

Duncan also acknowledged that the $100 billion in stimulus funding for education may have an uneven impact in states, since some, such as California, will still have to make drastic cuts, while others, such as South Dakota, will get an enormous windfall.

But he said that shouldn't preclude states that are in the red from taking steps to overhaul schools.

"In a time of crisis, you have to look very carefully at how you are spending the money," he said. "States that have been hardest hit" may be well-positioned to advance reforms, he added. "This is a huge test of leadership."

Today's was the latest in a series of tough-talk speeches by Duncan about the need to turn around low-performing schools, with the implication that states and districts that don't take the hint may be left out of the running for some of the $5 billion in Race to the Top and innovation grant money he will be doling out.

Duncan said he hadn't expected that so many states would drag their feet in applying for the first round of fiscal stabilization funding in the stimulus package. He said the Education Department hasn't come up with a contingency plan in case states don't finish their applications by the July deadline, since he expects them all to be complete by then.

"I don't think that's going to be much of a problem," he said.

Duncan was also asked about his efforts to improve Education Department's culture, after the department ranked near the bottom of a survey of the best places to work in the federal government. (The survey was taken before the Obama administration took office.)

He said that he will try to create the kind of collegial, professional working climate that he would like schools across the country to adopt.

If the department doesn't rise in the rankings, "you can hold me accountable," he said.


Sec. Duncan does like to pepper talks with the word "dramatic", but this morning's speech was definitely brought to you by the number "5 billion" and the word "fundamentally".

I understand the frustration among some at the Department who are responsible for getting an unprecedented amount of funding out to states as quickly as possible while assuring the funding will be used in a way that supports academic success for all children and youth. The tricky thing is that the rules to this new game and definitions used in the guidelines for getting the funding are so broad (not a bad thing by the way) that some are stymied by the freedom of it.

From the meetings I've attended with school board members, state administrators, and district superintendents from around the nation, I can see they are hungry for more information on how to get to the funding. They know it’s a new game and there’s a new sheriff in town; they’re just not sure how to proceed and don’t want to blow their chances to get funding. So…they wait…for more guidance… and pretty soon…we’re ticking away weeks and months. Our earnest friends at the Department know they can’t get too prescriptive with guidance because what works in Maine doesn’t necessarily work in Arizona, so they are doing their best to reach out for examples and post those examples on their website. Meanwhile the days tick by.

Grant seekers should get in alignment with what the Department is talking about by reading as much as they can about Duncan’s preferred uses of the stimulus aid and the guidance posted on the Departments web site, and use that language as it best fits with their work. The Department is looking for innovative ways that raise academic achievement, reduce dropout rates, and build partnerships to expand the sense of schooling beyond the traditional school day. If you have achieved success in something that sounds like what they are describing and you have documented results, use these in your proposal(s). If you’ve been working in your state or district across agencies and including non-profits and others to bust silos and scale up, you are in pretty good shape for seeking funding. It’s a new day in education and we can embrace the ambiguity knowing many of us are in the same boat.

I foresee a logical obstacle that might makes sending down the current Education budget problematic. You alluded to it in your blog, but it may be worth looking at more closely.

The ed department's current budget is unprecedented. There's never been an education budget this big before - EVER! It's sheer scale may foreshadow challenges that make disbursement of the funds much more difficult.

On May the 18th, at a symposium on “Resource Allocation, Reinvestment and Education Reform” held in Washington D.C. by the Center for American Progress (CAP), during the keynote address.

Secretary Duncan announced there that the US Department of Education’s budget, including regular Congressional appropriations and additional one-time-only allocations from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That includes a total of 100 Billion dollars for “entitlement programs” and another 10 Billion dollars for discretionary projects and programs.

I recently researched the NDEA's total budget. Best estimates are it was between 900 million and 1.5 billion dollars spent on education programs, equipment purchases, student loans, fellowships and student loans under NDEA between 1958 and 1962.

Assuming the accuracy of that estimate, the 2009 budget for the US Department of Education is almost 100 times bigger than the total expenditures for all the combined programs under NDEA over 4-5 years.

When NDEA became the “law of the land” in 1958 (P.L. 85-864), distribution of funds to the States was literally tied to five “entitlements” (Titles I, II, III, IV and V) that provided funds to virtually every school district or loan applicant that applied, with few strings attached.

NDEA funds were spent down over a period of 4-5 years. But the sum of all the NDEA budgets was considerably smaller than the budget now available under the Education Department’s combined budget with substantially more preconditions required.

Secretary Duncan’s reforms go right to the heart of what’s needed to change poor performance in our Nation’s K-20 educational system. But his prerequisites for states to receive their share of the education budget may make it harder for the U.S. Department of Education to successfully “spend down” that really enormous budget.

I hope the Secretary gets that ARRA $$ where it is so badly needed very soon.

America's schools and teachers (many of whom have already been "pink slipped") need that support to arrive in school district budgets as soon as possible.


(Parts of the above were reposted from here: http://www.democrats.org/page/community/post/rblomeyer/CGVJg )

Racial segregation is being used in public schools to keep racially targeted students out of classrooms and hallway restrooms when they report daily threats and violence. I have a letter from a school district telling my son he could not go to classes if a substitute was in the room and he could only use the nurse's restroom. This was his punishment for two years of reporting everytime he was threatened or assaulted. I guess it is only illegal if the child is not white.

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